Don’t Confuse ‘Thought Leadership’ With ‘Branded Content’ Or ‘Native Advertising’

This post originally appeared on Forbes.com on Nov. 21, 2013, and is authored by Davia Temin, who writes about reputation matters: crisis, leadership and strategy; and Ian Anderson.  
Thought leadership, branded content, content marketing, and native advertising are all stops along the continuum of how ideas are expressed, and products are marketed, over the Internet. 

Last week, “Google Search: Reunion,” a mesmerizing 3-minute video from Google India, blazed across social media, gaining over 5 million hits in just a few days. Intensely moving, unique, and believable, it tells a story of two friends separated in youth by war and government partition, who found one another in old age through the help of their grandchildren and Google. It brought most people who viewed it – and believed it – to tears.

One reason it is so very effective is that it feels real, and there is certainly nothing in the clip to announce that it is anything but a true story. But of course it is an ad promoting Google in India and features actors, not real people. It blurs the line between truth and fiction, authenticity and acting on social media – masterfully.

And that is just a taste of what is to come.

Church and State

In traditional media, there has always been a bright line between journalism (unsponsored, objective reporting and analysis that purports to uncover the truth, tell true stories, and be dedicated to the “public good”) and advertising (sponsored messages that have a point of view and benefit an organization, its products, or services). In fact, the Association of Magazine Media used to monitor the line between “church” and “state” closely – making sure that readers always understood which was which.

But this line has gotten mightily blurred in the world of social media. And that is not necessarily a good thing for a credulous, but trust-averse, public.

Unbiased, non-commercial research, commentary, stories, recommendations and reporting still are accorded more value – and trust – than marketing messages. But that does assume the public can tell the difference.

Have the reviews of the book you’re interested in on Amazon been commissioned, or are they authentic? Have the news stories you are reading on a website been written by a reporter, or a sponsored “news aggregator” somewhere overseas? Is that photo that touches you so much real, or Photoshopped?

On social media, most participants are looking for authenticity, but swimming in a sea of ambiguity.

What does content really mean?

And so, how does this affect corporate social media? Content has been proclaimed the coin of the realm in social media, but is that content church, state, or somewhere in-between? How do your viewers react now, and how will that change in the future?

Is the content your company produces, and posts on social media, thought leadership, branded content, content marketing or native advertising? And what is the most effective for your corporate needs?

Perhaps some definitions (and they are not easy to come by) can help illuminate the differences among thought leadership, branded content, content marketing, native advertising, and straight online marketing:

Thought Leadership

Thought leadership is the platinum standard of content-based reputation enhancement. In its pure form, it is information, research, ideas, expert commentary, and opinion that exist for their own sake, not to prove a direct commercial point.

Thought leadership is best for professional services firms, investment managers, consultants, colleges and universities, and any institution looking to build intellectual capital and create relationships because people find them intelligent, expert, and impressive. It is the most powerful kind of content, and examples include research from Deloitte, the Korn/Ferry InstituteMcKinsey Quarterly,BCG Perspectives, and Stanford Business Magazine.

Thought leadership can also be “viral” in that it provides new and interesting insights that can spark industry change. It can be used to raise brand awareness through sharing articles, white papers, and other thought leadership content with a broad audience.

Branded Content

Branded content is less platinum-standard, but arguably more fun, and effective with larger audiences. According to Wikipedia, it’s a fusion of advertising and entertainment, “intended to be distributed as entertainment content, albeit with a highly branded quality.”

This content might be humorous, entertaining, or interesting. While it doesn’t create the same kind of lasting, game-changing intellectual impression that thought leadership aspires to, it can be innovative in other ways. Much of what we see in online marketing is branded content: from videos, to contests, to hybrid campaigns that involve many different elements.

Branded content is often a bit more subtle than straight advertising – sometimes the content doesn’t have any images of the product itself, but is still trying to sell you something, or sell you the brand. This is the case with many YouTube campaigns that produce highly entertaining videos for marketing purposes.

Content Marketing 

Content marketing is the broadest category of all, encompassing “any marketing format that involves the creation and sharing of media and publishing content in order to acquire customers.” It includes everything from thought leadership to branded content, but is more direct in its commercial intent.

It is a broad type of marketing that includes the “sponsored  or promoted post” advertising found on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, etc. Content marketing is often the means by which you “push” the branded content or thought leadership you wish to promote, and try to get your followers to interact. This can come in the form of poststweets, and even videos (like the Old Spice Channel, for example).

Straight Online Marketing

Straight online marketing comes in the form of the most basic online advertisement. This is a step below ‘content marketing’ and includes the sidebar ads we see all the time, as well as banner ads, pop-ups, advertisements before videos, and other kinds of online content that we usually consider junk. This kind of marketing can be successful when done very well – much like ads on billboards or commercials on television. However, the public is building up resistance to this kind of content.

Native Advertising

Native advertising is a subset of branded content, and the most problematic: it is advertising that masquerades as independently created content.

For example, on BuzzFeed, articles that are sponsored sit side by side articles that are not, and they look almost the same. These are articles that look as though they have been independently written, but were produced to market something. So, the Google Reunion video ad would qualify as native advertising.

As with Reunion, native advertising is often highly successful, with many “articles” gaining thousands of shares and millions of views. But much of the success may be a function of people not looking carefully to see that they are sharing  product or brand promotions. Often, people will retweet BuzzFeed’s lists with only a glance at the article, so even if the content is labeled as from a “partner,” folks on social media might not be aware that they’re effectively sharing an advertisement.

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What Brand Ambassadors Can Learn from Honor Guards

American FlagHave you ever watched a U.S. military honor guard fold the American flag at a veteran’s funeral?  If you have, did you notice the honor guard’s striking appearance and presence, their laser-like focus on the task at hand, their dexterity as they expertly folded the flag 13 times until it took on the appearance of the hats worn by colonists during the Revolutionary War? And how they held the flag when they presented it, once it was completely smooth and its corners tucked in and it was perfect, to the survivors of the deceased?

No pun intended, but an honor guard does not cut any corners when it comes to the ceremonial folding of the American flag, when it comes to doing their job as perfectly as possible or when it comes to presenting the brand they stand for in the best possible light.

This week, at a funeral for the father of a good friend, the friends and relatives who stood outside in the cold to say their last good byes also witnessed a brilliant display of workmanship and brand ambassadorship, thanks to the honor guard.

To start the flag folding ceremony, the two young guards pulled Old Glory on each end until it was taught and then held it steady as possible waist-high.  With the flag now rippling in the breeze, the guards — making only eye contact with each other — began the methodical 13-step process they have rehearsed countless times.

Though skilled in their job there was no hurry in their actions, no distractions or multitasking at play, no desire to cut a corner.  Just the will to respect the deceased and his grieving loved ones. But also the desire to live the brand they hold so dear — and to do so perfectly.

Precision, attention to detail, professionalism, engagement and commitment to their brand. That’s what I saw in the U.S. military honor guard at William Joseph Casey’s farewell.

They are everything any organization could want in a brand ambassador.

Time for Global B2Bs to Ditch the Herd Mentality

survivorU_following_the_herdNavel-gazing sessions and working at a big B2B company have always gone hand-in-hand. But it looks like many of the big B2Bs are getting it all wrong when it comes to brainstorming key messages and positioning statements that will resonate with their customers.

You might say, as did the Captain in the movie classic Cool Hand Luke, to Luke:  What we’ve got here is (a) failure to communicate.

According to an in-depth B2B brand building study by McKinsey&Company involving Fortune 500 and DAX 30 companies and over 700 executives across six sectors, many of the brand messages customers value most are least mentioned by the companies they buy from.

A few highlights from the survey that are worth calling out:

  • there’s little connection between a brand’s influence on its customers and themes such as social responsibility, sustainability and global prowess – yet these are key themes that many global brands use in their positioning statements
  • brand themes that customers value most — “effective supply chain management and specialist market knowledge” — are rarely mentioned by the companies, and this little beauty…
  • the brand theme customers consider to be most important from their suppliers is “honest and open dialogue.”  But sadly this theme was not emphasized at all by the 90 companies included in the survey’s final sample.

What the…?

Several years ago at a navel-gazing session I participated in while working at a global PR agency, we looked at the key messages and positioning statements of our five largest competitors.  The team was asked to review the brand themes and key messages of the competing global agencies and to compare them with those of our firm.

As you might imagine, it was difficult to determine one firm from the next.

The follow the herd mentality is also prevalent, it turns out, among global B2B companies. According to the survey:  our analysis showed a surprising similarity among the brand themes that leading B2B companies emphasized, suggesting a tendency to follow the herd rather than create strongly differentiated brand messages.

The McKinsey authors — Tjark Freundt, Sascha Lehmann and Philipp Hillenbrand — give props to the IBM Smarter Planet branding campaign as a truly differentiating effort, one that communicated distinct and powerful external and internal themes that connected with the company’s range of key stakeholders — marketing, sales and R&D employees, customers and other influencers.

For an excellent and recent overview of the IBM campaign, check out Edward Boches’ postBoches, a partner at Mullen, calls Smarter Plant “a perfect case study for any of us working on comprehensive brand content programs as it has all of the components…”

As the folks at McKinsey advise, global B2B companies would be wise to closely monitor shifts in their markets and among their customer base and work harder to better align their brand themes with the changes.

Boches points out that while most companies aren’t capable of producing a campaign as grand as Smarter Planet, it remains “a solid example of taking a core business idea and bringing it to life in the form of lots of little ideas, distributed content, attention generating experiences, utility and platforms, and social engagement that invites participation.”

A More Human Model for Product Storytelling

Reblogged from MarketingProfs I Kathy Klotz

by Kathy Klotz-Guest

October 16, 2013

Humans are wired for stories; we’re storytelling animals. The resurgence in storytelling, the original social medium, is an important and welcome evolution for many reasons. Memorable stories scale in a way that facts alone cannot. And a multiplier effect is critical in marketing. Finally, stories cut through the tremendous clutter—much of it lacking context and meaning—created by the never-ending content explosion. Here’s where stories pay dividends: According to a recent Stanford study, stories are remembered up to 22 times more than facts alone.

In a world of noise, the best stories win.

From Product-Centered to Story-Driven Content

The most important thing any organization can do is become a storytelling organization. That means elevating your product or service discussion to one that focuses on the human needs of your audience.

It all begins with telling the right stories about real people who use your product or service and not focusing on the product itself. Your best stories are not about your products or you. Your goal is to tell a bigger story that makes your customer the hero.

Customers are doing their own research, and they’re asking the most important question: How will your product or service make my life better? If your marketing fails to elevate the discussion to one of change for the better, you’ll never rise above the din.

Getting Started

One of my favorite models for getting started with storytelling comes from improvisation—one of the most powerful ways of co-creating stories. It’s also that classic and fun universal bed-time story model that you’ll recognize from movies. I’ve used this model as an improviser on stage and as a marketer. Recently, I used this approach in several storytelling sessions I gave at Product Camp Silicon Valley 2013.

What I love about this particular model, called the “seven-step story,” is that you can easily adapt it. This approach covers all the key elements of a story, and it works for just about every type of story a company can have: a core purpose story, product stories, origin stories, and others.

Here’s the model for product/service stories told through the lens of your customer:

Once upon a time, <customer name> was doing…

And every day, he or she did <big challenge he or she has>…

Until one day, he or she discovered <enter the solution: your product or service>…

And because of that, he or she could <benefit 1>…

And because of that, he or she could <benefit 2>…

And because of that, he or she could <benefit 3>… (You don’t need three, but three is the maximum you want. Shorter stories are more powerful.>

And every day since that day, he or she uses <your product or service> because it enables him or her to <big human need>…

Show How Customers’ Situations ‘Change’

The most important part of a story is showing how the hero/protagonist of the story changes. What can your customer do now because of your product or service that he/she could not do before? That’s story rocket fuel.

Your product or service must make your customers look good. (They are the hero; your service becomes the supportive sidekick!)

Start thinking bigger than your product by focusing on what people really want: time, freedom, success, recognition, enhanced reputation, self-reliance, stability, belonging, safety, reduced risk, acceptance, security, credibility, and so on. Think about Abraham Maslow‘s famous “Hierarchy of Needs.”

No one needs your product or service. What they need is the change that your product or service allows them to make! And you don’t have to be saving lives to claim real value. You must aim for credibility, however. Great stories are built on a foundation of truth. And if you are in need of inspiration, ask customers, “How did we make your life better?” And make it personal. The best product stories are.

Here’s a brief example applying the model to Company X:

Once upon a time, Bob, a company owner, kept numerous files in various locations.

And every day he had to update information in many places because he did not have the data in one secure place to be able to work remotely. It was a huge pain in a number of ways.

Then, one day, a friend introduced Bob to Company X’s cloud-based data services.

Because of that, Bob could securely access data anywhere, anytime wherever he was.

Because of that he was able to get more work done quickly and easily and without worrying about compromising data security.

And every day since that day, Bob’s organization uses Company X because the ability to access data “anytime anywhere” securely has reduced his risk, ensured data freedom, and freed up his time to do what does best: run his business and spend time with his family—not with his IT department.

Customers Buy Stories, Not Products

Company X delivers its service via the cloud. No one needs cloud-based services, but the cloud is how Company X delivers its value. What matters is that the product allows users to do something (bigger than the product) that they could not do before. In this case, Company X enables information freedom, simplicity, security and freed-up time.

Your product story is always about the people who use what you sell and how their lives are better. When you focus on products and features—on you, instead of your customers—you are playing a small game.

Elevate your marketing. Products come and go; a deep commitment to changing customers’ lives for the better—something bigger than any company—must be an unwavering purpose that provides meaning. That’s the change your stories must focus on if they are to resonate emotionally with your audience, be memorable, and create compelling calls to action.

That’s my story. What’s yours? Email: Kathy(at)keepingithuman(dot)com

Brand Building For Young Professionals: 6 Simple Steps

ImagePersonal brand and reputation building is big business.
It’s virtually impossible to keep up with the never-ending wave of “how to build your personal brand” articles and books. It’s especially tough for young people who are just out of college and are looking for their first professional job in an employment market that often favors candidates who make the most noise.
Twenty years ago, or even 10, I don’t think many newly minted college grads were paying too much attention to personal brand building.  And using technology to build a personal brand, or to start earning a reputation, was nearly non-existent.  Then, one relied more on word-of-mouth and good old fashioned networking.  But today, the social network LinkedIn provides young, professional job seekers with the best platform ever for showcasing in full view of prospective employers their ambition, passion, competency, business smarts and networking savvy.
Like anything else, though, a tool is useless in the wrong hands.  For LinkedIn to become a true personal brand building solution, there are a few rules of the road.
I see too many young people — interns I have worked with, the sons and daughters of friends of mine, etc. — who are wasting a great opportunity by not investing time in LinkedIn. Meanwhile, those who get it — like Dan Schawbel and his disciples — are reaping the benefit.
Schawbel has built a tremendous business by advising Millennials on personal brand building. While there are scores of other personal brand building experts, Dan’s focus is on Millennials (young people who are generally in their 20’s and early 30’s, the focus of this post) who are just starting out. One of his books, “Me 2.0:  4 Steps to Building Your Future“, has been a best seller here and across Asia and Europe.
For young job seekers who may not have the time, or who are unwilling to make the time to read Dan’s or others’ books or attend the many personal branding seminars that are available, there are six relatively simple steps they can take on LinkedIn to grow their personal brand and begin to build their reputation as someone with something important to say.
Here are my six:
1. Can the profile picture of you at a party, or at an event or on vacation. Save those for
ImageFacebook.  And kill the glamour picture unless you’re in the entertainment industry.  Replace with a straightforward head on shot of you in professional attire wearing a nice smile.
2.  If you don’t yet have relevant work experience for your intended field, then fill your profile page with relevant skills instead.  For example, if you want to work in public relations but spent your college summers working as a waitress or waiter at Texas Roadhouse, then let’s hear about your customer service, problem solving, team building and communications skills. Find the relevance.
3. Build out your LinkedIn network.  To start, connect with college classmates, your professors, high school classmates who went to a different college than you and may already be working. Also, connect with your parent’s friends who may run their own small businesses or may be employed by big companies.  I guarantee they will be happy to hear from you. Don’t forget the professionals you talk with at the health club, or people you meet at summer weddings and graduation parties.
4. Ask for LinkedIn recommendations.  Don’t be shy about asking for help from managers you may have interned with, past summer employers or professors you may have assisted.  If you did good work, they will not refuse you.
5. “Follow” companies on LinkedIn you think may be a future employer.  Then visit their LinkedIn page and see who you may already know who works there.  Reach out to them even if you don’t see any jobs of interest posted.  Many open positions are never posted and those who are best networked often get first dibs.
6. Get involved.  Join a handful of the thousands of available LinkedIn groups. Guaranteed there will be groups in your chosen field no matter how obscure.  A couple of times a week visit the groups and eavesdrop on the discussion.  When you think you can contribute to a discussion, weigh in.  After the first time, it gets easier and easier.
Give LinkedIn your best shot.  Your competition already is.